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January 3, 1998


Rajiv or Stability, the Congress is in a dilemma

George Iype in New Delhi

Having roped in Sonia Gandhi as the party's star campaigner for next month's general election, the Congress leadership is now divided over a sensitive issue. Should the party's main poll plank be stability or the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi?

Sonia loyalists led by Congress Working Committee member Arjun Singh argue that the Jain Commission's report on the Rajiv Gandhi murder should be made the main issue during the election campaign.

The Congress manifesto committee headed by Pranab Mukherjee has held a number of meetings to finalise the party's principal poll plank. But a consensus has eluded the committee so far.

At its last meeting on Wednesday, Mukherjee crossed swords with Singh -- who is also a member of the manifesto committee -- over the issue. Mukherjee contended that the party could not bank on Rajiv's death as the single factor that could bring in votes for the Congress.

Mukherjee, supported by former finance minister and CWC member Dr Manmohan Singh, argued that political and economic stability should be projected as the party's main poll issue. They said the Congress could not shy away from the stability plank as the Bharatiya Janata Party has aggressively projected stability as its primary campaign issue.

Dr Singh is drafting a separate paper on economic matters to be incorporated into the party's manifesto. The former finance minister is of the view that since political instability ravaged the economic reform programme, stability should be projected as the Congress theme for the election campaign.

"Stability is the most important poll plank," Mukherjee told Rediff On The NeT, "because only the Congress can provide stability in the country."

"The main problem with the United Front government was that it was politically unstable and that has cost the country dear in economic terms," he said.

Many believe Mukherjee's resolve to project stability as the Congress's main poll issue has party president Sitaram Kesri's sanction.

But Kesri's opponents say they are stunned by the party leadership's retreat from the Rajiv assassination issue. "It is incredible that Kesri does not want to highlight the Jain Commission report during the campaign after he pulled down the Gujral government on that specific issue," a senior Congress leader said.

This leader felt Sonia's decision to campaign for the party will be "meaningless if Rajiv's death is not taken up as an emotional poll issue."

Arjun Singh has the support of other Sonia loyalists like Jitendra Prasada, Madhavrao Scindia and N D Tiwari in his belief that the Jain Commission report should be made the party's main vote-catching slogan.

Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad says a serious debate is on in the party over what should be projected as its main electoral issue. "There is no disagreement in the party over the different issues to be projected during the election campaign. All these issues deserve merit and publicity because the Congress cares for the country," he told Rediff On The NeT.

Many leaders believe Sonia should decide the main issue with which the Congress goes to the people. Though she is said to be interested only in campaigning for the party, Congress insiders say Sonia will ultimately be forced to play a bigger role, from okaying the manifesto to selecting candidates for the election.

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